Audience gets chilling view of Civil War prisons at monthly roundtable

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    SUSSEX COUNTY-If war is indeed the "terrible" event that Robert E. Lee and countless others along the way have claimed, then being a prisoner of war could be even worse — particularly for a POW enprisoned in the Civil War's most notorious prison camps: Andersonville, Ga. and Elmira, N.Y. The suffering and misery experienced by Union prisoners in Andersonville and by Confederates in Elmira was unequivocally driven home by historian Dr. Michael P. Gray at last week's Col. Henry Ryerson Civil War Round Table discussion on the grounds of Sussex County Community College. Entitled "Touring Civil War Prisons: Elmira and Andersonville," the driving, moving lecture provided a crowd of about 125 with a raw, frightening glimpse into the conditions of both prison camps, which were in operation in the final 14 months of the grueling four-year conflict between North and South. "The American Civil War touches us in many places, especially behind lines," stated Gray, a professor of history at East Stroudsburg University, at the beginning of the discussion. "One of the things prisoners had to contend with was disease." Just as it was the major cause of death among the 600,000 Civil War casualties, disease was probably even more rampant in both prisons, due to the lack any real knowledge of proper sanitation, hygiene and decent medicine. A lack of sufficient food and nutrition — in one case, unavoidable and in the other, as a retribution — did the rest. Located in southwestern New York State on a 40-acre site, Elmira, with a 12-foot constraining wall, began receiving Confederate prisoners in July 1864 at a time when overcrowding in other northern prison camps further south made another camp necessary. Beginning with the "Crash at the Curve," a horrific head-on collision in Shohola, Pa. between a prison train and coal train that killed at least 49 prisoners and 18 guards, conditions at Elmira were not pleasant, Gray outlined. Eventually, some 12,000 captured Confederates had to stay there, with some 3,000, or about 25 percent, dying. At first, the food supply was not overly bad, but once word of the conditions at Andersonville began traveling northward, a furious Union high command saw to it that food became more scarce at Elmira, Gray said. That led to a thriving business enterprise at Elmira between guards and prisoners, with the latter seeking ways to combat starvation. Using chewing tobacco as the "main source of currency," the speaker said, some of the more skilled prisoners began crafting ornate rings, which became popular among those in the surrounding community. Trusting guards, who were largely honest, the prisoners sold these rings, and many of the guards put some of the revenue back into the prison itself. However, the inmate population at Elmira that effectively doubled that town's population could be made miserable by being made a spectacle for many onlookers who watched the prison first from one "observation" tower that charged 15 cents admission, and soon after, a rival tower with a third deck that charged only five cents admission, Gray explained. Dubbed as "Pay-triotism Up Here" by Anthony Keiley, a Confederate inmate, the "competition" eventually ended when the second tower was taken down. John W. Jones, an escaped slave, cornered the business of carting off Confederate dead to their graves, taking as much as $2.50 for each body he buried, earning him about $7,000 overall and making him "one of the richest African Americans in that part of the state," Gray said. Yet, the ghastly trade did manage to produce one slightly humorous event when a Confederate posed as a cadaver by painting his face overly white, and then shortly after his wagon of caskets began to roll, he suddenly jumped up and yelled "Come to Judgement" to a badly-frightened driver before escaping. Jones, however, erected respectable gravesites, replete with markers that enabled later-grateful southerners to identify the grave of a loved one, making it into a national cemetery, Gray noted. That differed greatly from Andersonville, in which dead Union prisoners were buried in mass, unmarked graves. In fact, bad as Elmira was, virtually anyone could make the convincing argument that things at Andersonville were even worse. Constructed on a remote, 26-acre, southwestern Georgian site because of its proximity to railroad track and to hamper escape attempts, Andersonville, with its 20-foot double stockade, eventually housed 45,000 prisoners, of which 13,000 — or 28 percent — would die from disease and starvation, Andersonville had even worse sanitation woes, along with razor-thin food rationing since many southerners themselves could barely find enough to ate. Without even rats to turn to, Union POWS were only too glad to sometimes get no more than a quarter pound of maggot-infested "fresh beef" a day, noted Gray, who said that Andersonville became known as a "mass hospital." "Basically, 329 escaped Andersonville; most were recaptured," Gray said. Over the years, many began to wonder why the North had ended its prisoner exchange with the South, but the answer was callously simple, historians have noted. "The North now held more prisoners than the South held, and the manpower shortage was hurting the Confederacy much more than it hurt the Union," wrote Bruce Catton in his 1960 book, "The Civil War. "With lucid but pitiless logic Grant argued that to resume exchanges would simply reinforce the Confederate armies." Indeed, Grant concluded, that brutal though the conditions were, Union detainees would have to remain there. "The Union administration was callous," conceded Gray, who authored a 2001 book, "The Business of Captivity: Elmira and its Civil War Prison. (It was) quid pro quo, getting back for the suffering of Yankee prisoners down south. Prisoners weren't deemed a priority. They (South) couldn't take care of their captives. "The North knew one thing," Gray added. "It had more men and when all was said and done, he (Grant) could win the war that way." One measure of revenge was exacted when Swiss Immigrant and Andersonville commander Henry Wirz, known for his poor temperament of prisoners, was hung on Nov. 10, 1865 on the exact site where the U.S. Supreme Court building now stands. Was Wirz really the brutal warden he was executed for, or was he something of a scapegoat? "I would say scapegoat more than anything," Gray replied. "He was put in a situation that he couldn't handle. He had a bad demeanor and a bad personality, but you can say the same about a lot of the Union commanders."